Delving into Original 18th Century Sources, Part 1

How often do you access original sources? By original, I mean reading the actual record itself, whether you are lucky enough to hold the document or book in your hands or you read a microfilmed version or digital image.

Time and time again, family historians are urged to view the original record rather than reading a transcribed version or just an index entry.

I’ve pursued accessing many original records through the decades, but I have to admit that not many of them have been from colonial Massachusetts. A couple of years ago, I wrote about Emma Adams who married the man who never existed – William Seonnig – in Maine in the late 1800s. In reality, a researcher not only misread the marriage record, he/she transposed the first and last name, changing the surname “Bill” to the given name “William.” Thus, Loring Bill became William Seonnig.

Loring Bill Marriage Entry

More recently, I shared the story about the missing Coleman marriage record. FamilySearch had the record indexed, but the entry was not found in the proper year. It later turned out that the groom’s given name was incorrectly indexed as “David” when it was actually “Daniel.”

Indexed or transcribed records are known as derivative records because they are created, or derived from, the originals. Whenever there is a middleman between you and original sources, there is the possibility of human error.

This is one of the few blog posts I’ve written where I don’t yet know the end of the story because this particular research path is a current work in progress.

I have also written many times about my Coleman family. There is one break in the documented chain proving my grandmother Hazel Ethel Coleman’s ancestry back to Thomas Coleman, who settled in Nantucket by 1662, although he had lived elsewhere in the Massachusetts Bay Colony from the 1630s onward.

The break in the pedigree chain is with my grandmother’s 2x great grandfather (my 4x great grandfather), Joseph Coleman who was born somewhere in the span of 1768-1772 somewhere in Massachusetts. He married Ruth Spur in Massachusetts in 1793 and settled in Bowdoinham, Maine before 1800. He died in Bowdoinham in 1852.

The details are already given in the link two paragraphs up “one break” and this post isn’t about the last step of finding proof of parentage. Instead, the focus is on the difference between original and derived sources and actually locating/reading those records.

I don’t often pay professional researchers to do my work. The exception is when I can’t access certain records myself. For example, I paid a pro in Copenhagen to retrieve records from the Danish National Archives which haven’t been filmed or digitized and are not available elsewhere.

With as many New England ancestors as I have, I have maintained membership in the New England Historic Genealogical Society off and on through the years. I also know that, in spite of New England’s generally excellent genealogical records, there are gaps that create brick walls and the #1 place to seek help is NEHGS.

I decided that my Joseph Coleman brick wall was in need of professional advice since the only possible parents I had found for him were Joseph Coleman, born 1739 in Nantucket, and Eunice Coffin, his wife. This family left a very small paper trail, which led me to sign up for a telephone conference with Chief Genealogist at NEHGS, David Allen Lambert.

We spoke for only half an hour, but the time was well spent. He encouraged me to seek out original records that corresponded with the following derived records:

In the Vital Records of Nantucket, Massachusetts to the Year 1850, published in 1925, there were several entries for Joseph Coleman’s family.

Death of Joseph Coleman 1775

Tamar Coleman’s Baptism

There were actually three daughters of Joseph and Eunice baptized on 19 December 1773 – Tamar, along with her sisters, Elizabeth and “Jennet” or Jeanette.

If you haven’t used the Massachusetts vital records series, note the citations in each listing. Joseph’s has two – P.R. 38 and P.R. 63. Tamar’s entry has one – C.R. 3.

I will get back to what these citations mean in just a minute. I also found the Nantucket Historical Association‘s online surname database and found further entries for this family:

Joseph Jr., son of Joseph Coleman and Eunice

Family of Joseph and Eunice (Coffin) Coleman

This database was created through the work of Eliza Starbuck Barney.

Yes, I have tracked the family to Newburgh, Orange County, New York, but that has not provided any new information connecting my Joseph Coleman with his parents.

Therefore, Mr. Lambert suggested that I focus on tracking down the original records cited in the Nantucket vital records and contacting the Nantucket Historical Association to learn the sources of the Coleman family information in their database. None of the entries are source cited. Not only should I be looking for clues and/or further details about the family not found in the index, but I should try to fill in the story of Joseph Coleman’s life, as he died of yellow fever off the coast of Africa at the cusp of the start of the Revolutionary War.

Before we break until tomorrow for Part 2 – C.R. in the Nantucket vital records series refers to “Church Record” and P.R. refers to “Private Record.” The numbers after them refer to the list of records found at the beginning of the book. More on that on tomorrow, when I go down the rabbit hole, chasing the BSO (bright, shiny object.) I hope you’ll be following along with me!

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